Article published on December 2, 2013.
Dusting off the Golden Age
It is the most beloved – and respected – of crime genres. While the ‘Golden Age’ of British crime writing is held in high esteem (and America had some similarly classic writers such as John Dickson Carr), the real heavyweight – in terms of literary standing – is the American pulp tradition, forged in the bloodstained pages of the post-war magazines such as Black Mask, and boasting the two patron saints of American crime writing, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
The iconographic elements of the hardboiled world (private eye with a whisky bottle in a filing cabinet, femme fatale, rich – and usually corrupt – clients) remain as surefire a combination today as when they were fresh-minted, despite a million parodies. And the image of the lone investigator cutting through the polished surface of society to reveal the decay beneath has an existential force that makes most crime fiction seem trivial. This is a world in which female sexuality is often a snare and a delusion, plunging the hapless protagonist into a hazardous world of carnality and danger; and while the structure of society (manipulative politicians, brutal police) may seem callously efficient, the classic pulp novels present a world in which all is illusion – and fate can randomly destroy the protagonist.
The superficial ease of churning out potboilers attracted many hacks, such as the prolific but now little read Ellery Queen. But more literary sophistication was built into the genre by Ross Macdonald, with his private eye Lew Archer often investigating the dark secrets of families with forensic skill, and by Jim Thompson, whose chilling, amoral characters earned him the soubriquet ‘The Dimestore Dostoyevsky’. And, while the sexual politics of the genre may seem less than enlightened today, the treatment of violence and the erotic is as intoxicating as when these novels were written.
Tough Stuff: Jim Thompson
The thirty or so novels produced by Jim Thompson (1906-1977), usually as paperback originals, were little regarded during his life, despite a highly refined literary sense, and a peculiar mix of raw low-life realism, incisive and often brutal characterization, unusual narrative structures, and a psychological insight second to none in the pulp tradition. Often narrated in the first person, this technique allowed him to develop the ‘unreliable narrator’, a theme popular among post-modern novelists today. Much of his work was biographical, and most drew on direct experience. Born in Oklahoma, his father a county sheriff who was caught up in a corruption scandal. The family later moved to Texas, and most of his novels are set in a drab Southwest. Nearly always on the breadline, and a hardened alcoholic, he worked variously in hotels (as a procurer) and in the oilfields, began writing up true crime stories for pulp magazines, and became head of the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project, a New Deal initiative in the 1930s. His first crime novel, Heed the Thunder (1946) inaugurated an extraordinary series of very varied books, united only in their concentration on losers, chancers, nymphomaniacs and psychopaths. The nether world he world he portrays is comparable to that of William Burroughs in his more lucid moments (Junky, 1953) or Nelson Algren on a particularly bad day. What fame he achieved in his lifetime was established by The Killer Inside Me (1952), which remains a dark masterpiece by any standards. In 1955 he moved to Hollywood, where he adapted the screenplay for both Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957) whilst drinking his fees in the bars on Sunset Boulevard. His later books lost some of his inventive and literary verve and, although popular in France by the time of his death, none of his books were in print in the U.S. Interestingly, he made a brief appearance in Dick Richards’ 1975 film Farewell My Lovely. His critical reputation revived in the 1980s and, in addition to The Getaway, several notable films have been made of his novels: Pop.1280 (as Coup de Torchon by Bertrand Tavernier, 1981), The Kill-Off (Maggie Greenwald, 1989)), After Dark, My Sweet (James Foley, 1990) and The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990). Many of his books, however, remain unfilmable.
From the The Grifters to The Killer Inside Me
One would hardly turn to crime writers of the pulp and post-pulp era (even the best of them) for a balanced and percipient examination of gender issues. After all, everyone behaves badly in noir fiction – and if women seem just that much more duplicitous, that’s almost a back-handed compliment: the scheming, treacherous femmes of crime fiction are usually that bit smarter than the gullible males they put through the wringer. But certain writers were able to present a more nuanced picture of the relationship between the sexes, even within the imperatives of doom-laden novels – such as the gifted Jim Thompson, whose examination of both the male and female psyche was complex and unpredictable. In The Grifters, a novel about deception on every possible level, Roy Dillon is a charming and attractive con artist, whose mother, Lily, is involved with The Mob, while his girlfriend Moira has a similarly slippery moral compass. After a con job goes wrong and Roy is left injured, his nurse, Carol, seems to inhabit a different, more innocent universe. However, Roy’s largely successful attempts to avoid arraignment for his scams are threatened when Carol – who is not quite what she seems – is stirred into the heady brew that is Roy, his mother and mistress. Reading The Grifters is like being cast into a world where every value is up for grabs, not least sexuality: by the end of the novel, the reader (whatever their gender) will be questioning all assumptions about what might constitute fixed ‘male and female’ verities.
Stanley Kubrick was one of the famous admirers of Thompson’s remarkable 1952 novel, The Killer Inside Me, and its terrifying picture of a psychopathic consciousness conveyed in the first person has not dated, and is still a truly disturbing read. Lou Ford is the Deputy Sheriff of his modest Texas town, and is well thought of by the small populace. The general view of him is that he is efficient but unexciting – but Lou has a very dark secret, which he describes as his ‘sickness’. His adopted brother was blamed for an act of violence that Lou committed when he was younger, but this twisted part of his psyche is on the point of emerging again, and the consequences for Lou this time can’t be shrugged off onto others. In some ways, Thompson’s technique here echoes that of the existentialist novelists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, with the cruel, affectless prose conveying intense inner turmoil through indirect impressions. Once read, The Killer Inside Me is not easily forgotten.
A late entry in Thompson’s extraordinary oeuvre was The Getaway (1959), which remains outstanding (it was strikingly filmed by Sam Peckinpah with Steve McQueen). Like almost everything by Thompson: prime pulp crime writing at its best.
The Indomitable Lee Child
The 18th Jack Reacher novel is absolutely guaranteed to please the legion of Lee Child fans, and it is to be hoped that the author’s change of direction – a welcome one – is embraced by those admirers. We are once again in the company of a woman from one of the earlier books, Major Susan Turner, with whom the implacable Reacher interacted in 61 Hours. Child’s maverick hero calls on her unannounced, only to discover that the military police unit in Virginia (at which he worked) has suspended her. A range of clearly fictitious charges have been brought against her. Reacher helps Turner to escape from her captors, and the duo undertakes a dangerous odyssey. The difference between this book and its predecessors is the greater concentration on a female character; we may lose some of Reacher’s loner status, but the gains in characterisation are considerable.
Barry’s latest books are Nordic Noir and British Gothic Cinema